College freshmen discussing a subject

College is different than high school.

Students quickly figure this out during the first week on campus.

Weekly schedules are much different, syllabi reveal different curricula, and professors discuss different learning priorities.

Having an understanding of the differences between college and high school can be a way to fast-track success.

Rather than being a step behind while trying to understand the new academic reality of college, college students have the opportunity to change how they study before they start to struggle in their classes.

Let’s take a close look at the nine ways that college-level learning differs from high school.

9 Ways College-Level Learning Differs From High School

1. More Time Spent on Independent Learning

Young adult studying by herself

In college, there is a dramatic shift in how students spend their time.

When we looked at how many hours college students spend on homework, we found that college students spend less time in class and more time doing homework.

Here’s how the numbers break down.

In high school, students spend about 34 hours in class each week, based on national averages on the length of a school day.

Additionally, high schoolers spend about 10 hours per week on homework.

In contrast, full-time college students spend less time in class.

The general rule of thumb is that for each college credit, students spend one hour in class each week and two to three hours learning independently.

For a full-time college student taking 15 credits, there will be about 15 hours of class time per week.

Students can expect to spend 30 to 45 hours per week doing homework and studying.

In college, there is a shift to more independent learning outside of the classroom.

That’s a reverse to the high school model where more learning happens in the classroom.

2. Workload Increases

Young adult studying late at night

College students face workload increases that stem from two major factors.

First, your professors will tend to cover a lot of material in a short time.

Whereas high school classes typically lasted a full academic year, a college class wraps up in just one semester.

Secondly, the academic expectations of college are higher, and students may find that what was okay in high school doesn’t meet the expectations of college professors.

To quantify the increased workload of college students, we can use the weekly time estimates from above.

Each week, high school students spend an average of 44 hours on a combination of classes and homework.

That sum includes lunch breaks and gym classes, so exact academic time is realistically less, probably closer to 40 hours per week.

In comparison, the total time college students spend on academics is 45 to 60 hours each week.

That means college students should expect a 13 to 50 percent increase in time spent on academics.

3. College Classes Are More Difficult

College student confused by hard topic

College students may find that grading can be more severe, late assignments are usually not accepted, and there’s a limited opportunity for extra credit.

Some college professors start the first day of class by talking about how difficult the term will be.

After reviewing the syllabus, assignments, and course material, students learn the challenges they’ll face in their courses.

Many first-year students frequently assume that it’s just upperclassmen that will have truly difficult classes.

However, even intro classes will also be challenging.

College administrators explain that 100-level classes are not necessarily the easiest ones in college.

They’re basic and will include an overview of the subject.

However, they also cover a significant amount of new information.

Plus, intro classes provide the framework upon which more advanced courses build.

For example, Biology 101 establishes knowledge about the biological systems used throughout upper-level science classes such as neurobiology and physiology.

That might make the coursework basic, but it doesn’t mean it’ll be easy.

4. College Has More Reading

College student doing a pile of reading for class

Across all subjects, college students will face a tremendous amount of reading.

Average reading expectations will vary based on professor, course, and teaching style.

However, one professor explains that for a 200-level literature course, weekly assignments are about 110 to 160 pages per week.

That’s just one class!

By taking a diverse selection of courses each semester, you’ll be able to build some variety into your college reading assignments.

This will help you switch from textbook reading to scientific analysis to a narrative book.

College reading assignments are essential to your success.

One student said, “You have to read everything in college, whereas in high school, you barely had to read anything at all.”

5. Academic Responsibility Increases

College kids planning their schedules

College does have fewer rules.

You can sit where you want and choose the classes you want.

However, college professors expect you to be on top of your assignments and take responsibility for your grades.

This includes seeking out help if you’re struggling with the material and managing your progress on long-term projects.

This type of responsibility for one’s learning is much different from high school, where teachers would frequently remind students about their responsibilities.

One college professor explained,

“Most commonly, the students struggling in my intro classes are individuals who, for some reason, have no concept as to how to prepare for exams.

“They wonder why they have a ‘D’ since they’re putting in ‘a whole three hours of studying’ for each exam.

“Their eyes explode to the sizes of dinner plates when told they should be reading/writing/studying essentially daily throughout the semester if they want solid grades in all their classes.”

In college, you have adult-level responsibilities.

That means if you have a late-night and sleep through your morning class, there’s no one to blame by yourself.

6. There’s Increased Competition

College students competing for the best grades

College students may also find competition among classmates can be more intense.

There is a measure of self-selection that happens when the general student body of high school chooses schools to attend and students to study.

This could mean the best students in high school could be attending college classes with many other students who were the best in their classes.

This academic competition among college students becomes especially relevant in classes graded on a curve.

In these classes, students are not merely striving for a top percentage of correct answers. They’re competing with each other to set the curve.

7. Expectations of Critical Thinking

Students using their problem-solving and critical thinking skills in class

In high school, there is a focus on learning the facts and figures of a subject.

While this remains true in college to some extent, there is an expectation that students will display critical thinking skills in their classes.

Professors want students to demonstrate a depth of thought.

They’ll want you to wrestle with big ideas, making divergent connections, and building new ways of understanding.

For example, term papers need to go beyond straightforward textbook summaries.

Instead, they need to present forward-thinking ideas and demonstrate thought leadership.

In some cases, the critical thinking skills that undergraduate students develop will set the stage for more advanced coursework or research experiment design.

8. There’s Opportunity to Specialize

Students with different majors

At first, the college-level learning of freshman year may be similar to high school because students are taking general education classes.

These required courses will frequently have students from all majors, continuing a general education model.

However, most college degrees expect students to go beyond the introductory knowledge of a survey course.

As students progress, classes will become more specialized within their field.

This opportunity to specialize is an asset to college-level learning.

Rather than exploring the breadth of knowledge, it’s a chance to develop the depth of knowledge.

9. Lecture Halls Are More Common

Lecture hall for large classes

A large class in high school may have had 30 or 35 students.

However, in college, lecture classes can have 100 or more students in a lecture hall.

That large class size can get extreme.

At Texas A&M, a popular Business Law class had an average of 400 students per session, requiring a huge lecture hall.

At Cornell University, a popular professor of Psychology 101 was teaching 1,600 per class by the end of his 36-year tenure.

The class size was so large that it was meeting at the college’s concert hall.

Rather than the large class size being a result of a cost-cutting measure, this class was so large because of its popularity.

“Educators are quick to point out that large classes do not necessarily mean bad teaching any more than small classes guarantee good teaching,” said the New York Times.

Yet learning in a lecture hall is different from a traditional classroom.

It can be challenging to stay focused.

It’s challenging to stand out from the crowd, and students will face different participation requirements.

However, students still have access to academic support, even when attending large lecture classes.

Professors are usually available for questions before and after class.

Scheduled office hours give you a chance to meet your professors. Frequently, there’s also at least one teaching assistant who is available too.

For additional academic support, college students are increasingly also turning to platforms like OneClass. 

study tips

The academic platform lets students search for class notes and study guides shared by paid note-takers.

There’s also on-demand homework help so that you can get the academic assistance you need when you need it.

With these tools, a shocking 90 percent of OneClass users have improved their grades by at least one letter grade.

Browse the online directory to see what class materials already shared for your school.


These are the nine ways college-level learning differ from high school.

Did you find this article informative and helpful?

If you’re preparing to go to college, did you find something here to shape what to expect from college-level learning?

Or, as a college student, do you now better understand the ways college-level learning differ from high school?

Write in and let me know!

Jack Tai is the CEO and Co-founder of OneClass. Discover how this online tool has helped 90% of users improve by a letter grade.